Sunday being the Christian sabbath, still a “holy” or at least non-working day in some countries where the Christian – mostly Protestant – tradition still weighs heavily with the people (even where most of them are no longer religious), it’s a day on which we are tempted to talk about religion.
Most of the obscure or extinct religions we have discussed are either Gnostic or relevant to the emergence of the Gnostic cults in the Christian era. Put these titles into our search slot to see the posts: Thus, more or less, spake Zarathustra, May 26, 2009 (on Zoroastrianism); How a rich shipowner affected Christianity, January 2, 2010 (on Marcion); Erotic religion, January 24, 2010 (on Carpocrates and Epiphanes); The father of all heresy, February 23, 2010 (on Simon Magus); Yezidis and Mandeans, April 4, 2010; Mani and Manicheism, May 9, 2010; Hot in the land of Hum, October 14, 2010 (on the Bugomils);Valentinus, February 14, 2011; The heretics of Languedoc, May 1, 2011 (on the Cathars); Gnosticism: what is it?, March 3, 2013. We will have more to say about Gnosticism in general when the set of essays on a selection of individual sects is complete.
Today the topic is the Ophites, snake-worshippers of the second century CE . (Some sources maintain that Ophitic cults existed before the Christian era, but it is the snake-cults that include “Christ” that are of interest to us.)
What must it have been like for a child forced to take part in Gnostic worship? Pretty horrible, I should think. I can imagine small people screaming with terror when told that it was time for church, so to speak. It’s a consolation to remember that there weren’t many children in the early Gnostic communities. Almost all the sects were doctrinally against having children, though there were obviously some who slipped – we know of Gnostic sons following in their fathers’ footsteps.
A group of sects that practiced one of the most chilling rites were the Ophites. Ophis is the Greek for snake. A similar (or the same?) group of sects were the Naassenes, from the Greek naas, derived from the Hebrew nahash, serpent. To see why they held the snake holy we must look at their mythology of creation. From various scholarly accounts (colourful and dramatic, but not necessarily accurate), I’ve pieced together a fairly coherent picture.
This is the Ophite cosmogony (or an Ophite cosmogony):
The First Source, the Pro-Father, or the Abyss, or the Lowest Depth (in Greek, Bythos), emanated his First Idea, and as consort to the First Idea, Thought (Ennoia). From this first pair descended another pair, Truth and the Word (Logos), and from them another pair, and so on in a long series, the whole of which was called the Pleroma, or Fullness, the region of light.
The last pair were Spirit (Pneuma) and Wisdom (Sophia), and they dwelt immediately above Chaos. Now the elements of Chaos were Matter, Water, Darkness; and Sophia desired to create order out of them, but as she was purely spiritual and entirely of the light, she could not handle them. So she and her consort, Spirit, emanated another pair or szyzygy: one perfect, the Christ (Christos), and one imperfect, Wisdom Unformed (Sophia-Achamoth).
With the help of Sophia, Christos created the Idea of the Church (Ecclesia). Sophia-Achamoth wanted to create Man, and conceived a heavenly model for him called Adam-Kadmon, but she had first to have the world shaped out of Chaos, and for this task she needed to produce a Demiurge (Demiurgos, the Greek for a craftsman). In her efforts to realise her desires, she became entangled with Matter, and all that she could manage to bring forth in that predicament was a Being baser than she had intended, a power polluted by the material, a Demiurge certainly, but a wrong one. His name was Ialdabaoth, also called ‘The Son of Darkness’. When she saw that Ialdabaoth was proud and ambitious, she dreaded the outcome of what she had begun. She managed to free herself from Matter and rose again to the sphere between the spiritual and material worlds whence she had come. She could rise no higher, never having belonged to the spiritual world, but tried to build a barrier to keep the material world in its place.
Meanwhile, Ialdabaoth, knowing nothing of worlds above him or the First Source, produced his own subordinate emanations. Among the first six pairs were Iao and Sabaoth, Adonai and Eloi, Ouraios and Astaphaios – the first four being mystic names of the God of the Jews, the last two Fire and Water. He and the six pairs were the Archons of the Seven Worlds (including Sun and Moon), each inhabiting his own region. Next he created numerous other Archangels, Angels, and Powers, and after that, with the aid of his first six emanations, he took matter and fashioned the earth and Man.
But this was not Man as we know him. It was a thing; a huge, soulless monstrosity, formed in the hideous image of Ialdabaoth, lying helpless in the mud. The six Archons lifted it and carried it to Ialdabaoth to be animated with a spark of spirit. Ialdabaoth could do this because he himself had a spark of the divine light, handed down from his mother Sophia-Achamoth, as she had it from her own begetters. But Sophia-Achamoth, hating what she perceived Ialdabaoth’s nature to be, grudged him this power, and determined to punish him for his arrogant enterprise. However, she took pity on Man, and augmented the spark of divine spirit in him, until he resembled Adam-Kadmon rather than Ialdabaoth. And thus Adam came to be.
When Ialdabaoth saw that Man looked better than he did himself, he was filled with envy and rage. His face, made uglier yet by these evil passions, were reflected in the waters of the lower world, and the image took on a life of its own and crawled on to the land as Ophiomorphos, the Serpent-Form, a creature made of base matter plus hate, envy, and cunning.
Then Ialdabaoth made the Three Kingdoms of nature, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, with all the defects that we know them to possess. He set Adam and the female consort made from one of his ribs, in the Garden of Eden, and to keep them from knowing more than he would have them know, forbade them to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge – the Gnosis of Good and Evil.
But the Gnosis was already in Adam and his wife Eve, for it had come to them with the spirit, derived and descended from the unknown Pro-Father, through Sophia-Achamoth. And to strengthen their Gnostic instincts, Sophia-Achamoth (or, by some accounts, Sophia herself) sent Ophis, a serpent opposed to Ophiomorphos, to call them to the Tree and persuade them to eat the forbidden fruit. They did, and the fruit awoke in them an awareness of their corporeal condition with all its defects, and of their divine spirit imprisoned in their bodies. And though their disobedience doomed them to death, they were consoled by the knowledge that, as the body was mortal, the spirit would eventually be set free to return to its heavenly source. So to the Ophites the Fall of Man was not a loss but a gain; not a doom but a liberation.
Ialdabaoth did all he could to make the sons of Adam forget what the spirit told them. He sent Ophiomorphos to corrupt Cain, and Cain killed Abel. But then Adam and Eve begat Seth, who did not forget and was not corrupted. Seth’s descendants are the Gnostics, scattered among men, each bearing within him his spark of divine light. They bless the counsel given to their first forebears by Ophis, the Serpent in the Tree, the form on earth of heavenly Wisdom.
As only the children of Seth remembered what the spirit told them, for them alone, after long ages, Christos descended through the Seven Spheres of the Seven Planets into the world, sent by Bythos at the behest of Sophia, yielding in her turn to the prayers of Sophia-Achamoth. And Jesus, the son of Mary, received Christos into himself when he was baptized.
Christos, for as long as he was on earth, was filled by Sophia with perfect knowledge, the true Gnosis, and he taught it to those of his apostles who were fit to receive it. When Jesus was about to be crucified, Christos left him and rose to the lower heaven and sat at the right hand of Ialdabaoth, unperceived by the Demiurge, there to catch and save every soul – or “spark” – purified in its lifetime.
When all the scattered sparks of divine light have been gathered up by Christ from Ialdabaoth’s creation, the work of redemption will be accomplished, and the world will come to an end. All will then be reabsorbed into the Pleroma.
While condemned to live this life, the Ophites worshipped Sophia, Sophia-Achamoth, Ophis, and Christ.
A congregation paid its gratitude ritually to the Snake of Eden whenever the Eucharist – Holy Thanksgiving – was celebrated. A snake was released to crawl over loaves of bread spread on the altar before the celebrants devoured them, drank wine and menstrual blood, and in defiance of laws imposed on mankind by Ialdabaoth, stripped themselves naked to perform systematically every forbidden act of sexual copulation and self-gratification. Nobody knows whether the snake had a further part to play in the love-feast, but every imagination is free to surmise its worst.
Jillian Becker March 24, 2013